by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Sometimes, one of the most effective ways to learn about story concepts is to take an in-depth look at a single narrative and focus on the elements that make it work. Joe Oppenheimer’s short film, PLEA, provides an excellent template for examining how a character can develop, regardless of the length of the script. Oppenheimer is a former criminal defense lawyer turned writer/director from the UK whose story gives audiences an introduction to a complicated but common injustice. The film tells the story of a plea bargain falling apart in a Los Angeles Juvenile Court. It touches on the pervasive criminalization of foster youth and also dramatizes the outcome of an arcane offence called felony murder. It stars Eduardo Franco (American Vandal) as the defendant and Kate Morgan Chadwick (Shameless) as his lawyer, the protagonist in the story.
It may be helpful to view PLEA before or after reading this article, in order to follow along with the character deconstruction. It runs twenty minutes and can be viewed on Vimeo.
In our first glimpse of the protagonist, we see her look over at a toddler playing in the courtroom. This is a significant moment when introducing a character to the audience that we want the audience to root for. In this scene, we see her compassion – something we also feel as the audience seeing a child inside a courtroom. We also see her sitting physically in the back of the room, waiting for her case to come up. This establishes her as an outsider – someone who will be willing to challenge the system later in the story. We quickly learn what sentence she has made her goal to obtain for her client. We now have a clear external goal. We will know our protagonist has achieved her goal or failed when the judge pronounces the sentence.
We see her attempt to secure her outcome with the prosecuting attorney. We learn that she is not only empathetic to her client, but also savvy about the legal process. She’s willing to fight for what she wants. She is not a character who will simply let life happen to her and become a victim of circumstances, something audiences generally do not resonate with. The antagonistic prosecuting attorney actually agrees to her demands. At this point it appears as though our story will be short lived, as the protagonist has seemingly easily secured her goal. However, as with any good story, things get complicated before the goal is actually reached.
Our protagonist then goes to meet with her client to offer the deal she has procured for him. Things do not go as planned. Her client is not willing to plead guilty in order to secure the deal. Complicating feelings in the audience, we can understand why the defendant does not want to plead guilty. Our protagonist is finally able to persuade him, however, explaining that the plea option is far better than what certainly awaits him should the case go to trial. The defendant doesn’t like it, but finally understands. Again, it appears that our protagonist will now easily secure her goal. But we have a sense that what she wants will again slip through her fingers very soon – which it does.
Our heroine and her client enter the courtroom and prepare to enter the plea that will end the story and help our protagonist achieve her goal. However, at the last moment, the defendant changes his mind and decides not to take the deal in a frustrated outburst. Things become physical and the scene concludes with the defendant being dragged from the courtroom in handcuffs. It appears as though all is lost. How could the deal ever happen now?
In an unexpected twist, an unexpected character offers our protagonist a magical elixir, when the judge asks her to go speak with the defendant. It appears she will get another chance at her goal. However, the final battle will truly lie with her client. How will he ever be willing to reconsider after the emotion he has displayed? Undeterred, she descends into the bowels of the court to talk to him. The encounter goes very much as expected, ending with the defendant spitting in our heroine’s face. She leaves his cell, her head hung in defeat.
In her retreat, something inside her snaps. Her empathy for her client somehow overcomes her embarrassment and anger. She is able to see the situation for more than the moment it is, and instead as yet another systemic injustice. She returns to the young man’s cell to help him. They re-enter the court, both having changed in the moments that took place since they were last here. In the end, our protagonist is able to achieve her goal. She gets the outcome she worked for. However, in the final moment of the story, we see her break down. The price of the journey was nearly as great as the goal she wanted so terribly.
This final scene is important. Audiences want to see that characters have experienced some sort of catharsis over the course of their journey. In this powerful moment with our protagonist, we can see the toll of her internal voyage, as it mirrors our own.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.